The other day at the gym I noticed a beefed-up bodybuilder wearing a white skintight spandex workout shirt with the black lettering “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” sprawled across his sculpted chest. With every pulse of his muscles, every bicep curl, I found myself wondering what, exactly, was being constructed, how was he constructing it, and when, if ever, would its construction be complete?
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “construction” as “The act or result of construing, interpreting, or explaining.” “Construe,” I quickly looked up, is defined as “To adduce or explain the meaning of; interpret.” And “adduce,” finally, is defined as “To cite as an example or means of proof in an argument.”
“Under Construction,” in other words, could just as easily have said “The act or result of citing.” The body—this man’s body in the gym, for example—is used to cite, and is the result of what has been cited. His body has become his own argument.
It seems to me that, particularly for men in today’s culture, it is important not only to construct one’s sense of masculinity, but to do it in such a way as to appear, always, at all times, masculine. When I’m at the gym, for example, not only is it important that I construct my body to look manly, but also to construct a manly body in the most masculine manner possible. My body becomes the site of masculinity that I have cited from the culture-at-large.
Which reminds me of another time I was at the gym and I noticed two 30-something jocks, both of whom were, or were at least acting, straight, laughing and pointing at a man who was, or was at least stereotypically, gay, running on the treadmill with both his hands, limp-wristed, flailing by his sides. The jogger may or may not have been exercising in order to construct a more masculine body, but his body absolutely was not jogging in the most masculine manner possible.
The truth is I have been constructing, construing, maintaining, or just plain arguing with, my own sense of masculinity for as long as I can remember.
The impact of growing up “different,” more stereotypically feminine than masculine but unmistakably male, was dissonant, and divisive. I was, throughout my childhood, at war within: wanting to be like the other little boys, but knowing, or at least thinking, I was not. In what way I was different I could never have articulated, but my otherness was isolating. While the “real boys” played sports, talked about guns, cars, and were generally aggressive, I was more interested in singing, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing with dolls and baking with my mother in the kitchen. Crying came easy, I never understood cruelty, and was teased, both by my schoolmates and my two older brothers, for being “too sensitive.” Once, in grade six, I pretended to like guns so that the schoolboys would like me. It worked: For a week I was included in their fold. The sense of belonging, of finally being “normal,” filled me with joy. But it was only a matter of time before my true self shone through; and shone through it did: Beneath the painting of my self, my “femininity” eventually surfaced, as did my dislike of sports, and I was once again excluded, banished, from all the boys’ activities.
There were other signs of my “differentness.” My older sister, once while we were watching television in the living room, noticed me sitting with my legs crossed at the knees and, in a frenzy, told me never to sit “like that.” Her look of horror made me panic. “You need to sit like a real boy,” she said. My body had deceived me; in a moment of forgetfulness, my inner self had again revealed itself in ways I didn’t like, or seem to be able to control. Long before I’d heard of words like “gay” or “homosexual,” all I knew was my internal compass of desire was directing itself toward boys, and not, as I’d been taught was normal, girls. My own body could not be trusted; it was the enemy, and I questioned it repeatedly. Sometimes, during puberty, while lying naked in the bathtub after dinner, I prayed for God to make my penis into a vagina, and my flat chest into breasts. I’d stand and look at myself in the mirror, pushing my penis between my legs so that my body looked more like a body that was supposed to like boy-bodies. My prayers, however, went unanswered, and I remained out of synch, discordant to what was normal. I remained, to my bewilderment, a boy-body.
So what does all of this have to do with anything, the self-maintenance of masculinity or the masculinity of self-maintenance? I’m really not sure. But it does remind me of a few lines from the Anne Sexton poem “The Play.”
I am the only actor.
It is difficult for one woman
to act out a whole play.
The play is my life,
my solo act.
My running after the hands
and never catching up.
(The hands are out of sight -
that is, offstage.)
All I am doing onstage is running,
running to keep up,
but never making it.
The poem continues for several more stanzas, but in terms of masculinity, sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we, the ones who are constructing it, are all just “running after the hands and never catching up.”